Thursday, August 31, 2006

Swiss cows menacing dumb-ass tourists

From my brother, who has learned a thing or two about aggressive bovines (and has the scar from Pamplona to prove it):
Keep your distance. Avoid eye contact. And even if it looks cute, never hug a Swiss cow.

Responding to numerous "reports of unpleasant meetings between hikers and cattle" along Switzerland's picture-perfect Alpine trails this summer, the Swiss Hiking Federation has laid down a few ground rules.

"Leave the animals in peace and do not touch them. Never caress a calf," the group's guidance, posted on the website, reads.

"Do not scare the animals or look them directly in the eye. Do not wave sticks. Give a precise blow to the muzzle of the cow in the event of absolute need," it continues.

Evelyne Zaugg of the Swiss Hiking Federation said that while there were no precise statistics on incidents involving cows, walkers are reporting more run-ins than a few years ago.

She said new rearing practices, where the animals spend less time around farmers and wander in pastures with little human interaction, were partly to blame for the anti-social behavior.Many walkers also panic when confronted by cattle.

"Hikers lose reality about the cows. They don't know how to react when a cow appears," Zaugg said.

If approached by a cow, the hiking association recommends that walkers remain calm and slowly leave the area without turning their backs on the animal.

Michel Darbellay of the Service for the Prevention of Agricultural Accidents, a private group that helped produce the Swiss Hiking Federation's lowdown, said walkers had little to fear if they stayed 20 to 50 meters (yards) from any cow.

But dogs attract cow trouble, he warned.

Mother cows consider dogs a threat to their calves and tend to respond aggressively to their presence. It is when the dogs retreat toward their owners that walkers are most likely to face a charging cow, Darbellay said.

"The best practice is to maintain a fair distance and keep dogs on a leash," he said.

Conservative Islam gaining in Malaysia

Just yesterday, I posted on the alarm among Indonesia's secular and moderate Muslim communities at the prospect of the advancing conservative Islam movement. The same thing is happening in Malaysia, according to the IHT. Indeed, it seems to be the trend among Muslim nations, which are nearly all economically and politically backwards compared to the West.

Although a more observant form of worship isn't per se bad, in Islam at least it often means a return to a pre-medieval form of worship and set of punishments. From there it is not a far jump to seeing the West as irredeemably decadent and worthy of being destroyed.

'The idea of a secular state is dead in Malaysia," says Farish Noor, a Malaysian scholar who specializes in politics and Islam. "An Islamic society is already on the cards. The question is what kind of Islamic society this will be."

It is hard to square this view with a drive through modern Kuala Lumpur, its downtown bars and nightclubs not exactly the symbols of a budding theocracy. Yet as Malaysia marks 49 years of independence from Britain on Thursday, lurking behind a cosmopolitan facade is a tense and divisive battle over the country's future.

Those who want to maintain the country's secular roots are fighting what they call creeping Islamicization. Muslim women who at the time of independence often wore silky, tight-fitting outfits today do not leave the house without a head scarf, which is now also required for female police officers of all religions during official functions.

Muslim prayers are piped into the loudspeakers of government offices in the new administrative capital, Putrajaya. And Islamic police officers routinely arrest unmarried couples for "close proximity."

"I see the writing on the wall," said Ivy Josiah, the director of the Women's Aid Organization, a group that lobbies the government on women's issues. "It's only a matter of time before Malaysia becomes another Taliban state."

Malaysia, a multiracial country where just over half the population of 26 million is Muslim, is testing the limits of compatibility between traditional Muslim beliefs and Western- style democracy.

In Europe, the threat of terrorism posed by disaffected Muslims has spurred religious leaders and politicians to wonder whether there is a better way to assimilate Muslim and Western traditions. The experience of Malaysia appears to show that there is no easy solution, even after five decades of trying.

In recent years, a number of high- profile court cases have highlighted the clash between Muslim and secular laws, but none so much as the lawsuit brought by Lina Joy, a computer saleswoman, who is challenging the Malaysian government over its refusal to officially acknowledge her conversion from Islam to Christianity. After two lower courts ruled for the government, Joy awaits a judgment from the country's highest court.

The case has aggravated already mistrustful relations between Muslim, Christian and Hindu communities. It has led to death threats against one prominent lawyer, large protest gatherings and a ban by the government on any further public debate. At the heart of the case is the fundamental question of which is supreme in Malaysia: Muslim law or the country's secular Constitution.

Malaysia has a hybrid legal system that incorporates both Islamic and civil laws for personal and family matters: Muslims are governed by religious laws against drinking, eating during the daylight hours of Ramadan and having close proximity between unmarried women and men. Marriages, divorces, funerals, and inheritance are governed by Islamic laws.

For non-Muslims - Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs - civil laws apply. But the hybrid system is now in crisis and the multiracial fabric could fray.

Critics complain of Islamic influence in day-to-day governance. When the government recently debated whether free needles should be distributed to drug addicts, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said he would first check with the Muslim authorities for guidance on whether this followed Islamic principles.

"You are seeing worldwide a common thing happening," said Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a Muslim lawyer. "Muslims are defining themselves by their religion instead of their country." Malik recently asked for police protection after receiving death threats for his role in the Lina Joy case: he submitted a brief in defense of Joy's right to convert.

"Lina Joy is important because it's finally brought to light the tensions that exist between those who favor an Islamic state and those who believe in the universal values entrenched in the Constitution," Malik said in an interview.

Can it be that a majority Muslim population cannot exist in a secular state? Turkey is one, but the pressures there are enormous. If not for the military guaranteeing the secular nature of the state, the Turkish parliament would have long ago introduced strongly Islam-biased laws. I used to think that worshipping according to Allah's wishes was not a bar to a democratic and secular state. Certainly the firebrands would have us believe it impossible. I supppose the true question is whether Islam can moderate itself enough to operate as a majority population within secular democtratic nations.
Lawyers who back the government's position in the case say Muslims in Malaysia are subject to Islamic law. "We are not saying you do not have any choice of religion. But if you want to convert out you must do so in the Islamic court," said Zulkifli Noordin, a lawyer who submitted a brief in support of the government's position. [...]
This requirement flies in the face of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Zulkifli says 18 people have successfully left the faith, although many others are thought to have done so unofficially. In the country's most conservative state, Kelantan, local laws call for the death penalty for apostates. The law has not yet been applied.

The context of the tensions in the Lina Joy case is a Muslim community that says it feels under siege and threatened by a thriving evangelical Christian movement. Newspapers cite wild estimates of mass conversions if Lina Joy wins her case and call for a strengthening of religious law. [....]
Sounds as if they have a bit of a religious inferiority complex. No religion likes losing believers, but no ex-believer should have to jump through legal hoops in order to profess a new faith.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Jakarta Post urges a rejection of conservative Islam

And with good reason. They rightly fear a tyranny of the clerics, with a certain trampling of human and civil rights. Indonesia has a unique form of Islam, which is among the most tolerant in the world. However, like many moderate Muslim nations, it is under attack from a seductive strain of conservative Islam which promises incorruptible leadership and dignity. All it asks in return is acceptance of some form of sharia law, which is little hardship for most poor Muslims.

Having seen the violence and problems sharia law has brought to parts of Indonesia, the author is understandably alarmed:

If ever there was a discourse about "them and us" in Indonesia, it should be about "them" who want to promote conservative Islam through sharia that oppresses women and is antidemocratic and against multiculturalism, and "us" who want to promote civil Islam, secular democracy and a multicultural, cosmopolitan society. Those of us in the "us" category have to take a stand on this now before it is too late. We have to parade our views, demonstrate and speak out immediately and clearly against "them".

Indonesian Islam has been unique in its compatibility with democracy. It has been celebrated for its moderation in contrast to the conservative, extreme version that is practiced in the Middle East. Despite being in the majority, Muslims in Indonesia have lived happily side by side with Indonesians of all other religious beliefs.

However, that might not be the case in the future. It is already not the case in some parts of Indonesia. Now, as in many other parts of the Muslim world, Islam is under threat from the tidal wave of "Arabization" and conservatism. If we do not stop it now, this growing conservatism will result in our religion becoming a tyranny of the majority Muslims against the minority non-Muslims or even a tyranny against mainstream Muslims.

This is a critical moment for the future of the unique and moderate Indonesian version of Islam. It is now time for moderate Muslims, in alliance with the democratic and human rights movement in Indonesia, to speak out against "them". It is time for "us" to voice our loud support for civil and moderate Islam, to defend secularism and the multicultural society of Indonesia.

It is time to combine all of this with our work to build democracy and human rights in Indonesia. This is not about echoing what the west says. It is not about appeasing western pressure on the Muslim world. It is about what kind of future society we want to have.

We cannot let the rise of conservative Islam continue unchecked; it will be too late to deal with it later. In future, the subject could become too risky to touch; it could become impossible to find the space to debate it.

They are not winning yet, but the space is already constrained. Anybody who speaks out against "them" is accused of and perceived as anti-Islam. Foreigners who say something about sharia are regarded as Islamophobes. Women who speak out about sharia's discrimination against women are easily dismissed as western-influenced feminists. The only possible challenge can come from male Muslims who still face the risk of being seen as bad Muslims.

Before it's too late, we have to take that risk. Aceh's implementation of conservative sharia law should be a lesson for everyone. We should not repeat our failure to engage and deal with sharia and conservative groups, as we did in Aceh. Many of us failed to realize how Islam in Aceh was being exploited by conservative groups to promote something new, a different type of Islam that oppressed women, restricted freedom of speech, imposed a strict code of conduct and behavior that was against the local tradition and the nature of Islam itself.

When sharia in Aceh was still a discourse, the Acehnese did not express their disagreement clearly enough. Many people did not want to say anything publicly for many reasons, including fear. Many Indonesians were ignorant about what was proposed. Now it is being implemented as the law, it is too late and too difficult to even challenge. The lesson here is do not play with time or it will become too late.

We need to do something about this now. This is an elephant in the room that cannot be ignored. The elephant will take and has taken victims in some parts of Indonesia, especially in Aceh. It will cause more harm later to the development of the country. It will harm the development of democracy. It will interfere with economic recovery. It will create a very bad image for everyone. This is the last thing anyone should want to happen to Indonesia right now.

There is no other option, but for all of us to build alliances against conservatism. An axis of anti-extremism and conservative Islam has to be built. We should reject any attempt to intimidate and restrict the debate. We have to challenge the promotion of conservative Islamic values.

We should not be silent anymore. The time has come for us to speak out against "them" loudly and clearly. We cannot wait for the future impact. All the accusations of being anti-Islam, Islamophobia, being sympathetic to the west, etc., should not deter us from discussing the bigger issues that will have an impact on our society. It is still not too late to do things better. The stakes are high: if they win, everyone here will be a mullah, but if we win, everyone will be a democrat.

Science on the march: wearing a seat belt is safer

For their next study, these brain sharks will examine whether it gets darker when the sun goes down.

From an abstract in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention:
[T]he probability of accident and survival are influenced by the physical characteristics of the vehicles involved in the accident, and by the characteristics of the driver and the occupants. Using restrain system and riding in heavy vehicle increased the survival rate. Middle-aged drivers are less susceptible to involve in an accident, and surprisingly, female drivers are more likely to have an accident than male drivers. Riding in powerful vehicles (high horsepower) and driving late night increase the probability of accident.
Something called the "Brain Korea 21" project supported this groundbreaking research. They should ask for their money back. I'll pass over the female drivers being more likely to have accidents than male drivers conclusion without comment.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Hizbollah leader hitting all the right notes

Hizbollah's charismatic leader gave an outstanding interview last night. He made sure to give the interview on a secular station, and to a woman. In addition, he took pains to hold himself out as a Lebanese patriot. He would not allow his militia to be disarmed by the UN, but would allow the Lebanese army to disarm anyone it came across who was armed (not a likely scenario, and even if it occured, the army wouldn't take action).

He is combining damage control--by admitting a miscalculation in attacking and kidnapping Israeli soldiers--and seeking to address fears that he is willing to destroy Lebanon in his quest to destroy Israel.

All in all, this was one savvy performance.
The leader of Hizbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, became one of the most widely admired leaders in the Middle East overnight after a broadcast in which he impressed audiences of all persuasions.

The lengthy, peak-time television interview was watched all over the region. Some viewers likened the portly, smiling sheikh to the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who half a century ago became a hero by defying Israel, Britain and France during the Suez crisis.

But despite Nasrallah's standing, it is clear that few Lebanese even among his own Shia supporters have the stomach for a resumption of war and want him to turn his energies to rebuilding the country.

The interview was the first he has given since the war ended and was clearly designed to calm fears that there would be any second round of fighting. It contained a frank admission that, had he known the destruction that would result from the capture of two Israeli soldiers, he would never have allowed the operation to go ahead.

He also said that the strengthened deployment of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), which starts this week, had nothing to fear from his men, "as long as their mission is not to disarm the resistance".

He added that, if the Lebanese Army, which is moving to take control of the south of the country for the first time in decades, came across an armed man, "they have the right to disarm him".

Nasrallah also went out of this way to emphasise that the political capital Hizbollah had won with its "victory" against Israel would not be used to impose a Shia hegemony on the country's religious and sectarian patchwork.

Nasrallah chose to give the interview to the liberal, secular New TV station, rather than to his propaganda outlet, al Manar, and the questioner was a woman journalist, Maryam al Bassam.

It was watched by almost everyone in Lebanon and dominated coffee shop conversation yesterday. In Nasrallah's home village of Bazouriyeh, near Tyre, Shia residents were proud of the impression he had made.

"He has calmed the situation and people believe him," Hassan Sourour said. "Unlike all the other politicians, he is not a liar."

Christians were also impressed. "He is a good man, there is no doubt about it, "said Dani Khayat, a small businessman from Tyre. "He has a very trustworthy manner and lots of charisma."

There had been fears that the month-long war would increase friction between Christian, Sunni and Shia factions. But it seems to have stengthened national solidarity. A poll published by the respected Ipsos organisation suggested that nearly two thirds of people did not fear a resurgence of the 17-year civil war that ended in 1992.

Despite the prestige Hizbollah has won, respondents were evenly split on whether the militia should be allowed to keep its weapons.

Hizbollah is now under pressure from outside its ranks to show its commitment to a unified state. Ironically, its "victory" may force it to disarm and loosen its ties with Iran and Syria.

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, called on Hizbollah to to hand over its two Israeli captives to the Red Cross. Speaking during a visit to Lebanon, he also asked Israel to lift its blockade. [...]
It would be nice if he would call on Hizbollah to disarm and limit itself to political actions, but this seems too much to ask of Annan.

It looks as though Israel's "disproportionate" response worked better than the pundits claimed. Lebanon wants no repeat of Hizbollah's victory. Only through an overwhelming response to terrorist provocations can Israel hope to dissuade future attacks. Pundits may forget this, but Israel can not.

Guenter Grass's autobiography frees Germany from his moralizing

John Vinocur, one of the IHT's top columnists, reviews Guenter Grass's autobiography. He is less than overwhelmed by Grass's deliberately shaky memory when it comes to critical details.

Less a review of the book than of the man, Vinocur is clearly disappointed with Grass, who had set himself up as Germany's foremost moralist and finger-wagger.
[...] His memory quivers and shakes continuously concerning his revelation, now 60 years after the fact, about his time in the belly of the beast.

So much so that he insists his readers must understand his wavering can't be separated from his method, or choice of a title ("Peeling the Onion") - an approach that comes down to Grass pleading for the reasonableness of his story of tears and breaks in his stripping back of the onion's fragile, slippery layers.

But my argument here is exactly with this dodge. Grass, the wondrous novelist and self-appointed in-house moralist for postwar Germany, constructed a book meant to blur the self-disclosure of his SS past and, in the process, dull that new reality's potential moral hook on his legacy.

Grass's selectivity is fobbed off as memory failure, but it is systematic enough so what is left is not much more than mild self-criticism, reminiscence, and the brilliant descriptive language that would be expected of him.

The insignificance of the detail he does offer up, in combination with the continuing memory outages, works as a leitmotif so masterful that you have the impression that Grass focused all his art at creating this subterfuge. But in this accomplishment, he sets up an enormous tension between what he says he did not do - fire a shot, commit war crimes or even have an inkling of the SS's monstrousness - and the why of 60 years fleeing the reality of an SS involvement that he now makes out as taking place on the softest, least horrid edges of infamy.

In this reader's head, Grass constructs two columns: an intentional one for his version of events, and a second inadvertent column for what readers want to know and do not find out.

In confessional terms, this leaves no dust on Grass's knees. As the self-outing of a compromised moralist, there is barely an admission beyond blindness and stupidity. Never once does Grass acknowledge thinking a single impure Nazi-type thought, no less acting as its agent.

The writer is contrite, but what about the years of lies about being part of a symbol of devastation? We sense regret but do not feel his pain.

There are so many brilliant details that do not go to the point: a circus troupe of midgets performing in a bombed-out Berlin railway station; Grass, the small-scale rebel, pissing into two canteens of coffee he must carry through the woods to his drill instructors; Grass being interviewed by an officer on his plans after the "final victory" years, and responding with hopefully confusing babble about Dürer, Tintoretto, Caravaggio and Anselm Feuerbach and the painter Lovis Corinth.

And: an SS trooper back from the front taking out his bright blue glass eye and putting it as a marker on his food-piled plate while he gets up to go to the toilet; Grass filling a gas-mask holder with scavenged strawberry - or was it raspberry - jam; how Grass escapes death because he doesn't know how to ride a bike; a girl named Susanne stroking his hair, but not more, in an abandoned barn.

"Ah, if this only had a point," Grass writes in recalling Susanne.

Exactly. The point is in the column empty of details.

Grass talks about his hardened drill instructors back from the east and their "cruel wit." But what about their jokes - were they about Jews, partisans, or gypsies, or an extra schnaps ration for manning machine guns in mass executions? Not a detail.

And no names either of barracks buddies or thoughts about what they've become. Grass returns to see a persecuted teacher after the war, whose name we learn, but there are no faces, no conversations, no "cruel wit" from those who, in theory at least, were being schooled alongside the author by the SS.

Grass also spares the reader any re- creation or sense of the SS ideological training that dehumanized its members, and built a psychological machine to carry out, whether by Waffen SS troops or their black-uniformed counterparts, missions in the service of horror.

The column of no-details fills with unanswered questions. Grass mostly spares himself in the process and we are insulted in our disbelief. By not daring to provide the jokes, the names, the details, we ask again, what kind of human being wrote "The Tin Drum," and then hid from these personal facts for 60 years?

For me, the most extraordinary episode of this bewildering cop-out is the book's treacherously ambiguous description of how the 17-year-old Grass ditched his SS identity when cut off from his unit and facing capture by the Russians.

His SS insignia would have meant certain death. But Grass can't be sure if he thought himself of switching to a Wehrmacht jacket, or if a slyer companion told him to do it.

His struggling nonexplanation leaps off the page: This "unknowledge," as he calls it, is the book's axle. Everything turns or falls on it, but particularly Grass's contention that as a brilliant young man he really didn't understand what the SS was, or believe that the Holocaust had taken place until months after Germany's capitulation when Baldur von Schirach, the former Hitler Youth leader, acknowledged knowing of it at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal.

The great Grass ought to have been open to a clear choice: saying whether he jumped or was pushed into all this. Instead, he fudges the story of his SS enlistment and kind of glides around the specifics.

This is a shame. A great writer, up for one last whack in which he must rescue not so much his literary reputation but his honor, slithers around the requirement of finality.

Not so much out of uncertain memory but out of what looks like one more attempt, after 60 years of lying, not to let go, not to let the truth shine and burn off the haze.
Grass does his legacy no service with this elemental dodge. Fortunately, the rest of Germany has acknowledged and largely moved past its WW2 history. Grass is free to struggle to come grips with his morality and personal history, but he is no longer free to point fingers at Germans or Germany.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Ninja RINOs trample West Virginia

Ninja RINOs? West Virginia ninja RINOs? You better believe it. Don Surber, that most level headed and pragmatic of RINOs, is hosting this week's RINO carnival, and picked the ninja theme. Perhaps hitting the big 53 has made him giddy.

All the best from this RINO, who just this Saturday notched my 46th birthday.

An explanation of Ninjas and their super powers can be found here.

Another welcome attack on Multiculturism

This time from The Telegraph. An emphasis on immigrants keeping their heritage has led to a breakdown of the assimilation process, and thus to increased alienation of immigrants and their children. Normally the consequences (poor education, constrained employment opportunities) are limited to the family, but many Muslim immigrant families--in the UK, at least--are increasingly angry and see Muslim terrorists as worthy of their support.
In 1984, Ray Honeyford, a Bradford headmaster, was forced to retire after writing that multiculturalism was doing a disservice to children from immigrant backgrounds, who were denied the benefits of full integration with the society into which they would grow up. Last week, in slightly more mangled language, Ruth Kelly, the communities and local government minister, said much the same thing.

Opinions that were considered unconscionable 22 years ago are now commonplace on the Left. It was David Goodhart, bien pensant editor of the magazine Prospect, who first fretted from a liberal point of view about the social costs of large numbers of unassimilated immigrants. Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, took the argument further, pointing out that the chief victims of multicultural dogma were from ethnic minorities. Now, such thinking has reached the Cabinet.

Yet, although Mr Honeyford doubtless feels vindicated, we wonder whether, even today, a white man could say what he said through the medium of a Right-wing magazine. For, while politicians and opinion-formers may be coming round to his point of view, the inert mass of public sector jobsworths and racism awareness counsellors and outreach workers remains in place; and, for the race industry, multiculturalism is not a question of creed, but of livelihood.

The debate may have moved on, but public policy has not. In recent days, Celtic's goalkeeper, Artur Boruc, has been cautioned by police for crossing himself, and a woman was banned from an airline after she asked a flight attendant to stop saying "Oh my God", and then suggested that he would have taken her more seriously if she had been a Muslim.

It is tempting to say, "I told you so." The Leftists - of all parties - who inflicted their divisive creed on Britain are now waking up to the consequences. Many things that they hold dear - separation of Church and state, parity of the sexes, equality of all citizens before the law, tolerance of sexual minorities - are now in jeopardy. Then again, joy shall be in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over 99 just persons, which need no repentance.

The correct way forward is obvious. As a country, we ought to insist on certain shared civic virtues - personal freedom, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law - without fussing about how people eat, dress or pray. This is not a new formula. For hundreds of years, most British subjects were neither white nor Christian. Yet, twice in the previous century, millions of Empire and Commonwealth volunteers crossed half the world in order to fight for a country that they had never seen because they believed in what Britain stood for.

It is that vision of nationhood, civic rather than ethnic, that we ought to be promoting. Yet it is that vision on which the now discredited multiculturalists, to their shame, have turned their backs.
Saint Augustine, sent by the pope to re-christainize England, developed a practical philsophy on the matter: Perform the acts of faith and faith will come. The UK and other west European nations should begin be teaching and emphasizing the values which made the west so great.

It's not enough to be tolerant of the immigrants' ways, the immigrants must be made to see that tolerance is a two way street. To date, that message has been garbled.

Also: this from Mark Steyn on muliculturism vis a vis Islam is always good.

Alienation of US Muslims is on the increase, as this opinion piece in the WaPo notes.
[...] At the same time, the real story of American Muslims is one of accelerating alienation from the mainstream of U.S. life, with Muslims in this country choosing their Islamic identity over their American one.

A new generation of American Muslims -- living in the shadow of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- is becoming more religious. They are more likely to take comfort in their own communities, and less likely to embrace the nation's fabled melting pot of shared values and common culture.

Part of this is linked to the resurgence of Islam over the past several decades, a growth as visible in Western Europe and the United States as it is in Egypt and Morocco. But the Sept. 11 attacks also had the dual effect of making American Muslims feel isolated in their adopted country, while pushing them to rediscover their faith. [....]

Evolutionary biology majors get no Dept. of Education love

This bit of news comes from New Scientist. Lets hope it truly is an oversight (internal links in the original).
Evolutionary biology is mysteriously missing from the list of undergraduate subjects eligible for a US federal grant.

The department of education claims the omission is simply a mistake and insists that US students taking evolutionary biology majors are eligible for the grants. However, the incident has left pro-evolution campaigners wondering whether evolutionary biology was deliberately eliminated from the list by people who find Darwinian evolution impossible to reconcile with their own religious beliefs.

“I have reason to believe there is a serious problem here,” physicist Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, told New Scientist.

Krauss wrote a story in the New York Times on 15 August warning of the dangers that anti-evolutionist school board members pose to science education. The day after his story was published, a “Washington DC source”, who Krauss declined to name, alerted him to the department of education’s omission.

Krauss emailed the US Department of Education (DoE) the next day and alerted The Chronicle of Higher Education, which brought the incident to public attention on 22 August.

The grants in question are known as National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent or SMART grants and are available to undergraduates at US universities studying mathematics, science technology, engineering and “critical” foreign languages. The DoE is offering them for the first time this year in order to encourage students “to pursue college majors in high demand in the global economy”.

A pdf document on the DoE's website lists the hundreds of eligible majors, which include a variety of subjects from Artificial Intelligence and Robotics to Conservation Biology to Organic Chemistry. But, as this article is published, evolutionary biology is conspicuously absent. The nature of the omission is peculiar. Each subject is designated by a number and the list is arranged in numerical order. Yet there is a conspicuous white space flanked by the numbers 26.1302 and 26.1304, at the point where you would expect evolutionary biology, which is number 26.1303, to go [....]

“On its own, it’s not really a smoking gun,” says Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, California. “But in the context of actions that other people in the federal government have taken, it is suspicious.”

Branch is referring to claims in February 2006 that a NASA public relations officer muzzled climate scientists who did not conform to the Bush administration's view.

The DoE says the omission is a mistake that it will correct but offers no explanation for why it occurred. “Evolutionary biology is one of a number of majors under the "Ecology, Evolution, Systematics and Population Biology" category of majors eligible to receive SMART grants,” says spokesperson Katherine McLane in a public statement.

“There is no explanation for it being left off of the list – it has always been an eligible major. The department is making the necessary correction which will be in place before final guidance on AC/SMART grants is issued.”

Two other subjects – Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning Technology and Exercise Physiology – are also missing from the list. If the omissions were deliberate, it is unclear why these would also have been left out. Unlike evolutionary biology, these subjects are not typically offensive to anti-evolutionists, says Branch.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Weapons of less production

Threats to use oil as a weapon may be nearly as troublesome for Iran as it would be for the west, says the Economist ($).

Most of what one reads is how costly and damaging any oil embargo would be to industrialized nations. This piece explains how it could also harm Iran, notes that many nations have significant reserves to draw on, and points out that world wide pumping capacity can add some 2 million barrels/day (also: as prices climb, otherwise unproductive wells can be brought back on line; the higher the prices, the more production):
DO NOT force us to do something that will make people shiver in the cold.” With those words Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, gave warning this month of possible dire consequences if outsiders try to thwart his country’s nuclear ambitions. Iran, he vowed, is reluctantly ready to use the “oil weapon”—cutting its exports of 2.4m barrels per day (bpd)—if the west imposes sanctions. Although Iran volunteered this week for “serious talks” over its nuclear plans, it has not suspended a uranium-enrichment programme as America, Europe and others demand. As pressure rises again, oil markets watch anxiously for signs that Iran might one day pull the trigger.

Nor is Iran alone in threatening such tactics. Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s populist president, is using his country’s oil wealth to gain influence in Latin America. He has made noises about cutting off supplies to America, if he feels threatened by the superpower. Mr Chávez is in China this week, trying to strike an energy deal to reduce his country’s heavy dependence on oil sales to the United States. But that would mean Venezuela accepting a lower price, or China paying a premium, in order to ship the crude around the world. So far, neither party seems willing to do so.

That helps to illustrate how any exporter might find it costly to wield the oil weapon. Oil exports account for more than a quarter of Venezuela’s GDP and much government revenue. Rising oil prices and heavy government spending have driven recent economic growth. Those oil revenues also fund heavy social spending, both by the government and PDVSA, the state-owned oil company. Should Mr Chávez turn off the spigot for long the economic consequences at home would be grave. Iran, which has less external debt and more foreign-exchange reserves than Venezuela (an estimated $58 billion to Venezuela’s $24 billion), might be able to act for longer. Iran is the world’s fourth biggest exporter of oil, and even talk of cutting its exports helps push up oil prices.

What is less clear is whether the intended targets in the west are vulnerable. Together, Iran and Venezuela export less than 5m bpd. If these were entirely removed from the global supply, importers could turn to their oil stockpiles. America alone can draw 4.4m bpd from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which contains some 688m barrels of crude. Most rich countries have stores to cover 90 days of imports. Only a long boycott—several months at least—by Iran and Venezuela would see importers using up these reserves.

And a more likely response—which the International Energy Agency would expect—would see other oil exporters, including OPEC members, rushing to fill as much of the gap as possible. Exporters such as Saudi Arabia would have every incentive to increase supply if the oil price were high and if there were fears of rich economies tipping into recession. OPEC producers would worry about a repeat of turmoil in the 1980s, when collapsing consumer demand caused fiscal chaos throughout the cartel. Currently, OPEC is thought to have about 2m bpd of spare capacity.

Some have speculated about partial use of the oil weapon: a moderate cut in output by Iran or Venezuela, to send prices spiraling, or a selective embargo directed at America. Either activity might push up prices, and get speculators excited, but neither is likely to succeed over the long run if other oil producers were ready to bring on more supplies. Embargoes are even more feeble: oil is a fungible commodity, making targeted boycotts useless.

The risk from the oil weapon, therefore, seems to be the danger of price spikes. Even small interruptions, for example to exports from Iraq, have sent prices skywards. Although unpleasant, these incidents have not brought western economies to their knees. Americans and their allies may not shiver in the cold this winter—but they could be a little shaky when reading their heating bills.
Of course, this analysis holds only in the case of economic sanctions. Military action would mean that Iran attempts to hamper or end tanker traffic at the choke point it commands.

Primer on EU foreign policy.

The Economist ($) provides a primer on EU foreign policy (hint: more there, there, than I thought). It's informative given that many EU nations are contemplating sending troops to Lebanon (although they would be sent by individual governments, and operate under the UN).
[...] Europe's foreign policy is too young to be judged by its record. Until the end of the cold war, there was none to speak of. Only in the Amsterdam treaty of 1997 did the EU formally set up a common foreign and security policy, with a high representative (Javier Solana) to conduct it. The EU deployed policemen abroad for the first time in January 2003 (in Bosnia). Its first soldiers went in three months later, in Macedonia.

One result of being at this chrysalis stage is that EU foreign policy suffers from growing pains. For a start, the policymaking apparatus is incoherent. One institution is in charge of policy (Mr Solana, in the Council of Ministers, reports to national governments). Another (the European Commission, the EU's bureaucracy) controls the purse-strings. One of the few good bits of the ill-fated EU constitution would have resolved this bifurcation of responsibilities by making Mr Solana the EU's foreign minister and giving him a seat in the commission—but since the constitution crashed and burnt last year, that change is no longer on the agenda.

Besides its institutional constipation, Europe's foreign policy has been bedevilled by policy divisions. The most glaring was over Iraq in 2002-03, with Britain, Spain, Italy and several new EU members backing the war but France, Germany, Belgium and others vociferously against it. National governments have differed over Israel's war on Hizbullah in Lebanon too. Italy, France and Germany are now following their own courses over sending troops to Lebanon. Britain has dissented from plans for an EU military-planning staff distinct from NATO's, and also worried openly that an EU rapid-reaction force might undermine NATO. Germany and France have repeatedly gone their own way over policy towards Russia, just as Britain has with the United States.

Yet on the whole, most European countries have supported most areas of EU foreign policy since Iraq. They agreed to expand the NATO mission in Afghanistan, for example. France, Britain and Germany have maintained a united front on Iran. On balance, Europeans have agreed more than they have disagreed—even if differences over Iraq and the rest of the Middle East have been more spectacular.
Which is already a considerable acheivement. Less successful has been the ambition to establish the EU as one of many poles in a multipolar world:
The EU is not about to emerge as the great power that some have hankered after. Mr Chirac once talked grandly of Europe “balancing” the United States, and of the EU being one pole in a multipolar world. Those who argue that the EU needs a foreign policy because small and medium-sized countries can exert influence only by banding together are also, implicitly, measuring it against bigger powers.

But there are more plausible objectives to play for than trying, ineffectually, to set up a rival pole to America. Mr Solana's watchwords are “effective multilateralism”. This is shorthand for trying to create a world in which countries bind themselves into a network of laws, obligations and institutions—a world rather like the EU itself, in fact.
The treaty scheme is laudable. Treaties are a time honored method of formalizing agreements, and are especially useful for things commercial. One area they fail is when rogue nations use them as cover for military means (see Iran and N. Korea. Although N. Korea had the good grace to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty).
Effective multilateralism should by now have a certain credibility. When Europeans give advice on, say, peacemaking or institution-building, they know what they are talking about: bitter former enemies now work together in the EU through common institutions. In some places, the EU can also play a useful security role. Rupert Smith, a former British general, argues that conflict resolution is increasingly about the early and precise deployment of small forces to defuse trouble, rather than the army-smashing application of overwhelming might. The model is Macedonia, where the EU headed off ethnic strife by dispatching a small force, and followed up with offers of help—and, ultimately, with the carrot of EU membership.

Moreover, although the record is limited, what evidence there is suggests that effective multilateralism is something the EU can actually deliver. Its single biggest foreign-policy success of recent years is eastward expansion—though that is now threatened by the spread of “enlargement fatigue” in some countries, and specifically by hostility to Turkey's accession. By and large peacekeeping missions have worked too, even in the Balkans. [...]
[After a discussion of problems with designing and implementing a united foreign policy, the article continues--P]
Indeed, most EU peacekeeping missions have been labelled as supporting UN or NATO operations. This has not stopped arguments. The Dutch have traditionally been strong NATO supporters, yet their government agonised for weeks about joining NATO troops in Afghanistan. So did the Italians. Now the French are leading worriers about the UN operation in Lebanon. If the Europeans cannot quickly resolve such concerns, it will not be only the Middle East that suffers—it will be the EU's entire foreign-policy credibility.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Ex-PM predicts Chirac comeback--quickly becomes France's top comedy act

Jacques Chirac's most loyal politician floats a trail balloon for Chirac to run again for president in 2007. I can't see it getting far before being punctured. President Chirac is about as highly regarded as a rat in a chowder, both at home and abroad; his political career is all but finished. He should turn his attention to a defense of criminal charges still hanging over him.

The Financial Times provides the guffaws:
Jean-Pierre Raffarin, France’s former prime minister, warned on Wednesday that next year’s presidential election could defy early predictions by producing a surprise repeat of the 2002 clash between Jacques Chirac against Lionel Jospin. [...]

Mr Raffarin, who quit in May 2005 as prime minister after three years as Mr Chirac’s loyal servant, said on French radio that he would “absolutely not exclude” the possibility of his former boss running for a record third term as president. [...]

“It is completely possible,” he insisted. “Imagine a major conflict in the Middle East, we could have extremely serious international tensions and frankly, when you look at the French political scene, who has more authority… than Jacques Chirac?” [....]
I think only the French imagine a pivotal role for France in the event of a major conflict--unless errand boy fits that definition. Major conflicts call for major nations, which leaves France out.

Waiting for Chirac? Or feckless French?

Is this Chirac's game? To stand on the sidelines until the world implores France to please, please, save the Middle East? That would be too cynical--even from a Frenchman willing to manipulate events to serve his interests. If true, though, Jim Hoagland, a WaPo columnist, obliges in an open letter to his buddy Jacques:

[...] The European Union's foreign ministers meet in Brussels tomorrow, and you have told several world leaders that you will make a final decision by then on whether to provide enough troops and leadership to make the new military stabilization force for southern Lebanon credible and effective. It is vital for Europe, for the Middle East and for France that you commit to doing just that. [...]

A French-led force would be a particular target for car-bombers and other assassins from Syria and its client Lebanese guerrilla organization, Hezbollah, you are said to believe. Your determined efforts to eliminate Syria's control over Lebanon, to pursue the Syrian officials who assassinated your friend, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and to deny Iran a nuclear weapon -- to say nothing of the extraordinary but merited public rebukes you have aimed at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government -- lend weight to your concerns.

And the watering down of command arrangements in the U.N. resolution that created the new force did nothing to help you overcome the immediate strong doubts of your own Defense Ministry about the wisdom of a Lebanon operation. [...]

The five-week border conflict has created a small strategic opening for avoiding that wider war. Israel -- now led by a lawyer, not a general -- has attached a new importance to the Lebanese government's controlling its own territory, to U.N. resolutions in general and to international peacekeeping forces for the region. And Europe has been more willing to fix responsibility for the crisis on those who are determined to destroy Israel on any pretext available. [...]

As France hesitated in recent days, Italy has stepped forward to offer to command and put 3,000 troops into the new 15,000-strong force. Prime Minister Romano Prodi has turned out, to President Bush's delighted surprise, to show strong and consistent leadership in foreign affairs. Bravissimo, Romano.

But significant participation by France, which has always claimed a special role with Lebanon and Syria as well as global political and military responsibilities, is vital to the U.N. force, as Secretary General Kofi Annan said to you this week. He's right on that.

Finally, I confess a personal interest: Americans who have long argued that France and Europe have a constructive, important role to play in global affairs -- including in the Middle East -- have a huge stake in your decision. That proposition is, to say the least, not obvious to all Americans. Failure to seize and use this dangerous opportunity in Lebanon that France helped forge would sink such hopes for as far ahead as I can see.

Perhaps Italy's rising to the challenge will sting the French into action. Certainly, if they wait too much longer, they will lose an opportunity to play a meaningful role in the region.

Hoagland is right to note that France's pressuring Syria has made it a target if it deploys to Lebanaon. He neglected to mention that France's tough response to Iranian deceit doubly endangers French troops. That said, leadership and influence bring responsibility and risk. France is making a mistake by playing the reluctant saviour or reacting timidly.

Most importantly, Europe's lack of willpower to confront its responsibilities is again on display. Failure to follow through with this mission will only underline Europe's moral decay and weakness.

In any case, Chirac will have to pony up more troops.

Noted Arab scientist calls on Arabs to demand democracy

From the only Arab ever to win a Nobel Prize in Science (Chemistry) comes this call for Arabs to get off their duffs and demand the necessary changes to bring the Arab world into the 21st century. Good luck as the the opposite seems to be happening. Increasing numbers in the Arab world appear to be more comfortable in the 12th century than in the modern world.

The author's call for another pan-Arab community is interesting, but will never again happen. Nassar was the last to seriously propose it, but failed miserably. However the calls for a renewed "House of Islam" from Islamists show how powerful a message unity is for Arabs.
The cataclysmic wars in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq have uncovered the reality of Arab unity and plight, and the collective conscience of international society. It is abundantly clear that the Arab people must themselves build a new system for a new future. The current state, as judged by a low GDP, high level of illiteracy, and deteriorating performance in education and science, is neither in consonance with their hearts and minds nor does it provide for their political, economic, and educational aspirations.

Yet this is the same Arab world that produced leading civilisations, world-class universities, and renowned scholars and scientists. Clearly, something has gone seriously astray.
Just like in Africa, that something is primarily a series of strong men who put themselves and their tribes uppermost. The resulting corruption and inefficiency has damned the region to generations of poverty and neglect.

That long-past Arab world produced those civilisations under the energies of Islam. Unfortunately those energies were also expended in conquering. Soon after Islam stopped conquering, it began its long, slow decline as a goad to improve civilization.

Christianity's ability to drive progress also waned over time, but the critical difference is that it produced the Enlightment, which led to amazing scientific discoveries, political changes, and an attitude that the best is yet to come. Ossified as it is, Islam shows no such promise.
As someone from, and directly involved with, this part of the world, I am convinced Arabs are qualified to regain their glorious past. Arabs have two-thirds of "proved oil reserves", and copious sunlight for possible alternative energy. They have their own market, the potential for an Arab Union, and many Arab countries are strategically positioned, geographically and politically. The people have a unique culture of community and family values, and their faith is inclusive and pluralistic. Above all, the Arab world has people with talent and creativity, with nearly half of the population in its youth. These are forces for progress, but without nurturing intrinsic talent and establishing a cogent system of governance the status quo will prevail.
That cogent system of governence must be some form of representative democracy. It is the sine qua non of progress. While Prof. Zewail's plan has zero chance of being implemented anytime soon, it is important that Arab men and women of international standing speak up.
In my view, there are four "pillars of change" that would support an imperative historic renaissance for transforming the current state of affairs. First, a new political system must be established with, at its core, a constitution defining the democratic principles of human rights, freedom of speech, and governance through contested elections. A select delegation of honorable intellectuals, respected political personalities, and thoughtful religious scholars, perhaps under the patronage of supreme-court judges, should form a council to debate and chart a new constitution for a final referendum involving the people. The co-existence of religious values in the lives of individuals and secular rules in the governance of the state should be clearly defined. There is no need to fear conflict, as reason and faith are driving forces in western democratic societies and in some Muslim countries such as Turkey and Malaysia.

Second, the rule of law must in practice be applied to every individual, independent of caste, faith, or background. Currently, some rules of law are either unenforced or selectively enforced, resulting in demoralising practices. Besides being a prime cause of poor economic growth, poor governance breeds corruption which cripples investment, wastes resources, and diminishes confidence. If rules are applied fairly, people acquire security and faith in their system.

Third, the methods used in education, cultural practices, and scientific research must be revisited, reviewed, and revitalised. The goal should be to promote critical thinking and a value system of reasoning, discipline, and teamwork. The government should remain responsible for the primary education of all. Higher education should be based on quality not quantity, receive merit-based funding, and be free of unnecessary bureaucracy. Not the least of the benefits of educational reform is to foster the pride of achievement at national and international levels.

Fourth, an overhauling of the Arab media is necessary. Currently, there are numerous satellite TV channels and several so-called media cities generously financed, perhaps much more than research institutions. Yet people are inundated with mind-numbing and propaganda programmes. The conceptually new al-Jazeera has become a very effective news media among millions of Arabs; similar media outlets concerned with cultural, social, and educational events should be established.

The primary objective is to stimulate minds and encourage critical thinking for civilised debates and dialogues. Governments should control neither the news nor appointment of editors; quality and appropriateness should be controlled by the judgement of professionals and the wisdom of society in accordance with the rule of law.

We Arabs can accomplish the transition to the world of the 21st century, but the people and leaders must embark on a new course. Incremental changes - so-called gradual reforms - are inappropriate for a system that has been ineffective for decades. We should have confidence in ourselves and in global participation, and not blame others for current calamities or use religion for political gains. The responsibility of the individual for self and societal improvement is clearly stated in The Koran: "Indeed! God will not change the good condition of the people as long as they do not change their state of goodness themselves."

I appeal to the Arab people to participate in this process of historic change and not to be distracted by the ideologies of the past and conspiracy theories of the future. Being passive creates a state of apathy and legitimises the status quo. I call on intellectuals to focus on the greater good, not just for personal gain. Conscience and integrity are national responsibilities in this critical period of history. I urge the leaders of the Arab world to implement these historical changes and, in so doing, become makers of history. A genuine and peaceful transition to democracy is both legitimate and timely.

Before too long the oil will run out and human talent will migrate, but if we commit to "pillars of change", with jihad for modernity and enlightenment, we will realise our rightful place in the future.

Prof. Ziwail swims against the rising tide of Islamist belief. That this tide will one day swamp the leaders responsible for Arab lands being left behind is hardly comforting. Nevertheless, any such calls should be praised.

Not discussed: the threat of Islamist belief. It can't be that this doesn't worry him. As its popularity increases it makes democracy even more elusive. I suppose he wanted to make his points as simply as possible.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

France and its many crises

France has problems, baggage, and issues (Bonus: an overview of 30 years of pop psychology terminology). In a previous post, I noted that Germany is no longer the sick man of Europe, and gave that title to Italy rather than France (the popular choice). This analysis in the Financial Times gives me pause.

According to the article, France is facing three crises: Economic, Social and Identity. France has the makings to challenge Britain and Germany for economic leadership of Europe, but lacks the political will. Should it gain political confidence to liberalize its economy, the other problems will diminish (in any case, the French need to see themselves as different will always serve to justify French actions--even if it means adopting a more capitalistic outlook, it will be French, and therefore, better).

[...] The presidential election will be great theatre. But it also comes at a moment when the French are clearly desperate for new political leadership. The public’s mood is bleak. A recent Louis Harris poll showed that 85 per cent of French people think their country is on the “wrong track”. Political extremism flourishes in such a climate. In the last presidential election in 2002, 35 per cent of voters cast their initial ballots either for the extreme right or the extreme left – since then the evidence that France is “in crisis” has only mounted.

Indeed, it seems that France faces not one crisis but three: a social crisis, an economic crisis and an identity crisis. Each of these problems has had its signature event over the past 14 months. Last November, the depth of France’s social problems was revealed when the country faced 25 consecutive nights of rioting in the banlieues – the deprived suburbs, where poor, unemployed Muslim immigrants tend to live. The difficulty of economic reform was underlined in February when the government had to withdraw its efforts to make it easier to hire and fire young workers, after millions of demonstrators took to the streets. There are also new uncertainties over France’s role in the world. For the past 50 years, France has built its foreign policy around the construction of a strong Europe. But in May 2005, French voters rejected plans for a new constitution for the European Union, creating a dilemma that the country’s politicians and diplomats have yet to resolve.

All these crises have manifested themselves in different ways and at different times. But they are also all linked. The connection between youth unemployment levels of nearly 25 per cent and unrest in the banlieues is obvious. But it is not just that economic problems are creating social problems. In a country with as generous a welfare state as France, social problems are also creating economic problems. The government has not run a balanced budget since 1981 and public debt is growing ominously.

[...] France’s “identity crisis” is also contributing to its economic and social difficulties. No less than the Americans, the French like to believe that they are a nation that is both exemplary and exceptional: “l’exception française” is a cliché of political debate. But it is becoming harder and harder for the French to maintain their faith that their country has a global significance. As a morose Parisian journalist put it to me recently: “In the period of Louis XIV, France was the world’s leading political power; during the Enlightenment, it was the world’s leading intellectual power; under Napoleon it was the world’s leading military power; after that, France was a leading cultural power – in art, literature and philosophy. But now we have lost even that.”

The failure to find a worthy successor to Jean-Paul Sartre is probably not something that troubles many inhabitants of the banlieues. But the French search for something that makes their country exceptional is making the resolution of its economic and social problems much harder. For many French opinion-formers, it is the country’s social model which now defines its role in the world. While the “Anglo-Saxons” push a brutal form of liberalised and globalised capitalism, France, it is argued, can present an alternative model of a more humane social system, which stresses solidarity rather than unbridled competition. [...]

The Ségo versus Sarko fight [in 2007 for the presidency] may well turn on how the candidates exploit these two contrasting strands in public opinion – on the one hand, a deep pessimism about the future and a desire for change; on the other, a deep attachment to a social model which most mainstream economists think is unsustainable, at least in its present form. Although Ms Royal has been studiously vague about her programme, she seems unlikely to campaign on a programme of radical reform to the welfare state. Mr Sarkozy, however, has been scathing about the French social model. In a new book, he writes that: “The best social model is one that gives a job to everyone, so it is evidently not ours, because we have twice as many unemployed as our main partners.”

But even a Sarkozy victory in 2007 will be no guarantee of change. As a minister, Mr Sarkozy has revealed strong populist and interventionist instincts that sit alongside his liberalising rhetoric. And while he talks of the need for “rupture”, Mr Sarkozy will also be aware that there is a long history of attempts at economic reform in France being derailed by popular demonstrations.

When the French take to the streets, it often seems that they are defending more than economic interests. They are also reflecting a belief that France’s social model still embodies the country’s historic commitment to “equality and fraternity” and paying tribute to the country’s revolutionary tradition. Even Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, has said with apparent pride that: “In France, reform appears to be against our nature; only revolution seems capable of overcoming inertia and imposing renewal.”

Economic reform is hard enough when all you are doing is taking on entrenched economic interests. When you are also taking on a country’s perception of its nature and its role in the world, it becomes even more daunting.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Nuclear power in the US: an industry viewpoint

An interesting look at nuclear power's chances in the US from the utility industry's point of view. Short answer: looking up, but still considerable resistance.

To my mind, there is very little that can challenge nuclear these days. Although coal-fired plants are cheaper and more flexible, the expenses running them could mount quickly should the US mandate costly CO2 capture and sequestration technologies. Nuclear is the greenest of the major energy sources (no greenhouse gases, no acid rain causing chemicals or other pollutants), while new and better plants are coming on-line around the world.
Nobody in the United States has started building a nuclear power plant in more than three decades. Mayo Shattuck could be the first.

As the chief executive of Constellation Energy, a utility holding company in Baltimore that already operates five nuclear reactors, Shattuck is convinced that nuclear power is on the verge of a renaissance, ready to provide reliable electricity at a competitive price. He has already taken the first steps toward that goal, moving this month to order critical parts for a new reactor.

But Constellation's neighbor, PPL Corp., takes a different view. Even though PPL has successfully operated two reactors since 1983, its chairman and chief executive, William Hecht, has avoided putting even a toe in the water on a new nuclear project and is investing in coal technology instead. [...]

[W]ith the industry now consolidated so that most reactors are in the hands of a comparatively few operators, utility executives are sharply divided over whether nuclear power offers an attractive choice as they seek to satisfy a growing demand for electricity.

For them, the question comes down not so much to safety and environmental impact but to whether the potential reward is worth the financial risk. And those who already operate several reactors are prone to want more.

The debate within the utility industry over reviving nuclear power has taken on added importance, though, because this energy source, unlike coal and other fossil fuels, does not produce gases that contribute to global warming. [...]

Washington is encouraging U.S. utilities to push ahead. Energy legislation last summer offered a generous production tax credit, insurance against regulatory delays and loan guarantees. Earlier legislation gave the industry money to help plan new plants. And they continue to enjoy a ceiling on liability damages in case of an accident.

Despite its promise as a clean energy source that could hold down emissions of global warming gases, most environmentalists are skeptical of the latest claims of nuclear power's advocates. [...]

Today, nuclear power supplies just under 20 percent of the electricity used in the United States - roughly the same as in Britain or Spain, but far behind France, where nuclear accounts for 78 percent of its energy production, or Sweden, with 50 percent.

With the price of natural gas increasing, coal has emerged once again has the most popular way to generate electricity, a trend that - if it continues - is expected to lead to a significant rise in emissions of carbon dioxide. The utility sector emits about one-third of the carbon dioxide produced in the United States, nearly all of that from coal.

Adding dozens of nuclear reactors to that mix could reverse the rise in carbon dioxide from the electricity generating system, but nuclear power would also run up against certain limits.

Nuclear plants cannot replace all of the fossil fuel used in power generation, because current nuclear designs do not easily alter their power output. Plants running on natural gas and coal, by contrast, can adjust their output over the course of a day to match demand. [...]
This is not a problem. Increased demand for energy will take all the power nuclear can generate. There will always remain enough fossil fuel burning plants to ensure flexibility.
[B]ecause of high prices for natural gas and uncertainty about how emissions from coal plants will be regulated in future decades, the nuclear industry is moving from near death to the prospect that perhaps a handful of new plants will be ordered within the next few years. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington counts 27 potential reactors under consideration; 103 are now operable in the United States.

For all the momentum behind the push, however, there is still a high degree of skepticism within the utility industry.

PPL, for example, has successfully operated two reactors in Berwick, Pennsylvania, for 23 years. But while some utilities around the country are making preliminary moves or joining consortia to explore new designs, PPL is not.

There are better places to put his shareholders' money, Hecht, PPL's chief executive, said. At the moment, he sees an advantage in cleaning up his coal-fired plants, investing $1.5 billion to scrub out most of the sulfur dioxide. That would not only benefit the environment but also generate pollution credits that PPL can profitably sell. [...]

By contrast, Constellation Energy, the Baltimore company, not only wants to build reactors for itself, it has also formed a partnership with a reactor manufacturer to build and operate them for other utilities. [...]

But the risk that really matters to utility executives is financial. Among the companies that would actually build these plants, executives focus more on uncertain factors like the future price of power in the market, the cost of producing competing fuels, and the cost of cleaning up coal plants to meet standards for the pollutants that Washington does regulate - sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and soot. [...]

But even if a few plants get built, industry insiders do not expect nuclear power to assume a significantly greater role. Roger Gale, an electricity expert and former Energy Department official, asks several hundred utility executives each year what they foresee in their industry.

While they are now convinced that a new plant will be ordered soon, the more than 100 senior utility executives who responded also said they do not expect "a future where nuclear generation represents a larger share of generation" than today.
Even if future nuclear power generation remains at 20%, many more nuclear plants will need to go on-line to keep up with demand.

Germany no longer the sick man of Europe; sorry, Italy

Good news for Germans and Europeans in general. To paraphrase "Engine" Charlie Wilson, what's good for Germany is good for Europe. Germany is Europe's largest economy and influences how the rest of Europe behaves economically.

This news is more evidence of how Schroeder's ill advised policies kept Germany at a disadvantage. Clearly not all credit goes to Merkel and the limited reforms--Schroeder did begin important reforms on his own--but her can-do attitude has made a concrete difference. Schroeder had years at the helm and produced generally dismal results.
Germany, the largest economy on the Continent, is no longer "the sick man of Europe," Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday, claiming part of the credit for the revival.

Sluggish growth and high unemployment have dogged Germany for years - problems that weighed on the world economy and helped Merkel win election last year.

Taking stock after nine months in office, Merkel, a conservative, conceded that plans to raise taxes were unpopular. She pointed, however, to signs of recovery, including accelerating growth and falling unemployment.

"I think we can say that we have turned the corner, though that development must still be consolidated," Merkel said at a news conference.

Figures released last week showed that the German economy grew by 0.9 percent in the second quarter, its fastest pace in more than five years. Unemployment fell slightly in July, the first decline for that month since German reunification in 1990, though the jobless rate remained at 10.5 percent.

Merkel said the strengthening of the economy was partly a result of her coalition government's efforts to cut the budget deficit and ease regulations on small businesses. But she also acknowledged that it was profiting from an upturn in the world economy and from changes to the welfare state begun under her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. [...]
Germany is world's foremost exporter of goods. Any uptick in the global economy will have immediate results in Germany's economy.
"I am convinced that we are emerging from the spiral of debt and that has important side effects and consequences" for growth and investment, she said.

Who inherits the sick man title? Either Italy or France. Both have overly restrictive economies, but at least France has the industrial base, business leaders, and infra-structure to succeed. It lacks only the political will.

Italy, on the other hand, has few world beaters in its boardrooms, and is poorly prepared for meeting the global challenge. It faces a slow descent into the economic margains.

UPDATE: Perhaps I blogged too soon. German investor confidence plunges. The index used to track confidence is known to fluctuate, but the drop was considerable, and thus meaningful

Monday, August 21, 2006

RINO carnival spotted Belw the beltway

Doug from Below the Beltway (as you can imagine, he is ideally placed to catch the buffonery that goes on in our capitol) has the latest collection of RINO postings.

The Kurds' day in court

In all the talk and comment about how the opportunity for meaningful change in Iraq has been slipping away, it's nice to be reminded of one major plus from the US invasion of Iraq: the removal and capture of Saddam Hussein.

This arch villian is to face trail for his genocidal policies against Iraq's Kurds. This piece in the Telegraph discusses the charges against him, the history of his actions, and the difficulty of proving genocide.
Saddam Hussein goes on trial for the second time today, this time to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The case concerns Operation Anfal, the notorious 1988 campaign against the Kurds of northern Iraq led by Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known to Iraqis as “Chemical Ali” who is among the six co-defendants in the dock. [...]

In the course of ten months, countless Kurdish villages were bombed and whole communities wiped out. Some perished of mustard gas and nerve agents, substances whose use has for decades been under an international ban. Survivors were deported to concentration camps, where most were eventually murdered and dumped in mass graves. In the course of ten months, up to 100,000 Kurds were killed ordisappeared. The massacre at Halabja, in which an estimated 5,000 were gassed to death, will be the subject of a third trial, as will the ferocious crushing in 1991 of the Shia rebellion in southern Iraq; but it is this trial that will bring home to many Sunni and Shia Iraqis just how appallingly their Kurdish compatriots were treated.

Genocide is, however, notoriously difficult to prove. The crime is defined in international law as the intentional destruction of an ethnic group, in part or in whole. Prosecutors must establish not only what happened to the victims and on whose orders; they must satisfy the court that these atrocities formed part of a premeditated plan against a particular group of people. Merely to prove that non-Kurds were massacred along with Kurds could undermine the prosecution’s case. Prosecutors at The Hague have encountered such problems in dealing with genocide in former Yugoslavia. It was wise to include crimes against humanity in the indictment.

Saddam’s defence will probably deny genocidal intent, claiming that this was the militarily legitimate crushing of secessionist and otherwise rebellious Kurds, some of them suspected of colluding with the enemy, in the final months of the Iran-Iraq war.

The argument is specious; nothing justified the cold-blooded eradication of entire families. But as the first trial has shown, Saddam revels in the specious riposte, delivered with swaggering contempt. There is method in his mockery of due process. The more he berates judges and menaces witnesses, the more bodies such as Human Rights Watch mutter piously about “serious shortcomings” in Iraqi justice.

Saddam’s aim is to subvert the course of justice. Better procedures would make tricks harder to play. Witnesses should be better prepared and protected. Propagandistic harangues should be promptly curtailed and contempt of court by the accused or their lawyers dealt with robustly. These trials may not be perfect, but observers should also recall how Slobodan Milosevic ran rings round the court at The Hague. Saddam’s crimes are for Iraqis to judge. It is in Iraq, not some farflung courtroom, that justice needs to be seen to have prevailed.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Disarm Hizbollah = weaken Iran

Iran is on a roll. Its proxy in Lebanon is the darling of the Arab and Muslim world, while its own nuclear weapon program moves steadily forward. Bush, Blair, and Israel are licking political wounds from their involvement in the Middle East. Small wonder Iran is feeling on top of the world.

Oliver Kamm argues in the Guardian that it is in the West's interests to disarm Hizbollah, lest Iran set up other proxy armies to spread its theocratic revolution:
[The limits of diplomacy] will be tested and reached if the enemies of peace draw comfort from the curtailment of Israel's actions against Hizbullah [he earlier argued that Israel stopped its operation too soon--P].

On that point, the auguries are not encouraging. President Assad of Syria made an inflammatory speech on Tuesday directed not only at Israel but also at Lebanese political leaders, whom he accused of collaborating with Israel. Most significantly, if Hizbullah is perceived to have been strengthened in a struggle with Israel, the prospects for a pacific southern Lebanon, or a two-state territorial accommodation between Israel and Palestine, are bleak.

Israel's critics will claim that military action has strengthened Islamist militancy in Lebanon and the region. But this is question-begging. Hizbullah and its state supporters also claimed vindication from Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon under the dovish government of Ehud Barak. The bombings of Israeli civilians are a function not of Israeli provocation but of Hizbullah's ideological conviction - that Israel is an illegitimate state - and its capabilities.

Western powers have a particular responsibility. Hopes that the theocratic regime in Iran would moderate over the years have been thwarted. The mere fact that the Khomeini revolution has not spread has apparently made Iran's leaders more determined to operate by proxy, through Shia militias such as Hizbullah. Unifil must now disarm Hizbullah, and be seen to do so. If it does not, then Iran's ambitions in the region, and its transfer of arms, will only burgeon. The prospect that a revolutionary regime headed by a Holocaust-denier and seeking a nuclear capability will enhance its position from an unresolved conflict is the business of all of us.
Syria is already strengthening ties to Iran. Moderate Jordan may soon feel Iran's pressure, and weaken its ties to the US. Diplomats will be very busy over the next few years. Constraining Iran's actions will be problematic, as there seems to be no negotiating with it. The closer it comes to its nuclear bomb, the less likely it will be to discuss anything. Which is why it's important to begin now to limit its influence.

Quote of the day: none so blind... version

Some in the UK Muslim community are wondering if maybe the source of the radicalization of young, impressionable Muslims might be found in their own backyard. There are increasing calls for investigations of suspect groups and mosques.

This iman, though, doesn't buy it:
"[...] It would be wrong to put the blame on Tablighi Jamaat [a group with links to several past and recent British terrorists--P]. If the killing of Iraqis triggers a young follower into something, it is because of that trigger, not because of Tablighi." [or presumably any Islamist group--P]
Remember that. It can't be because the way Islam is taught by some of these groups, it must be because the British are trying to keep Muslims from killing other Muslims. With his views, this fellow should be out protesting Muslim sectarian violence.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

A defense of Floyd Landis

Landis' case is the most spectacular doping scandal in history. The evidence against him is damning. But he does have at least one defender, and he makes his case (such as it is) on the opinion page of the IHT:
We all have every reason to believe that the American cyclist Floyd Landis cheated to win this year's Tour de France. Not only have his tests come up positive for high testosterone ratios, but damning evidence of exogenous, or synthetic, testosterone has been found as well.

All this comes on top of a never-ending series of massive doping scandals that have blackened the sport. Landis represents the 10th positive doping case in the past three years for his Phonak team, which this week was forced to disband for lack of sponsorship.

Landis's flailing public relations efforts, consisting of ever-changing feeble excuses, have turned him into an international laughing stock. Add the fact that his positive test came after a ride dubbed "improbable " by many, on the Tour's 17th stage, which had televison commentators (including me) gushing about "the greatest performance ever" and the entire episode seems neatly done up as the story of a desperate man in a dirty sport who reached too far.

Yet I believe that Floyd Landis is innocent and that we are witnessing a terrible injustice. I've lived this sport for 35 years and know the European professional cycling circuit intimately, and I feel strongly that in this case something is wrong.

The credibility of the Châtenay-Malabry laboratory that analyzed both of Landis's tests has been question. In 2005, the president of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations called for the investigation and suspension of the lab after it was involved in the leaking of Lance Armstrong's (and only Armstrong's) results from experimental testing done on frozen 1999 Tour samples.
A red herring. The lab's procedures and methods are proper or it wouldn't be accredited. If he wants to claim some one altered the sample, that is another matter. I note that he makes no such accusation.
When Pat McQuaid, president of the International Cycling Union, explained why the union leaked the initial news of Landis's positive test, he said, "We know that the French laboratory has a close connection with L'Equipe" - France's leading sports newspaper - "and we did not want this news to come through the press, because we are sure they would have leaked it." Labs are not supposed to be able to identify samples or leak information. This is a fundamental principle of ethical scientific testing.

Whenever an athlete tests positive for banned drugs, you look to see who is close to them. Landis's trainer, Dr. Allen Lim, an exercise physiologist from Colorado, is an expert in the use of power meters, devices that attach to racing bicycles and measure power output. According to Lim, the "improbable" stage 17 victory on July 20 was a triumph of strategy, science and Landis's vitality. Landis averaged 280 watts over the five hours of the ride, but he has averaged 320 for six hours in training - documented proof, according to Lim, that the performance was well within Landis's capability.
This is a nice piece of trivia, but little more. I don't dispute that he was naturally capable of his epic ride. My problem is that he was found with synthetic testosterone in his system, along with a highly skewed testoterone ratio. Using the author's suggestion of looking who was close to Landis, we see that the Phonak team was one of the most drug-riddled over the past several years. Not good company.
The real trick on the day was the 55 bottles of cold water in the team car. Landis, alone in front as planned for easy access to them, continuously poured them over his head and body, keeping him in a "thermoneutral" state. Behind, the chasers, with less access to liquids, raced with core body temperatures reflecting the day's scorching heat.
Not true, dumping water over a body causes most of it to run off, very little of that water actually evaporated. Although he benefited from a comfort standpoint, the others were not harmed so long as they had access to sufficient drinking water (I'm not sure what the author means by "thermoneutral". Not sweating? not shivering? A few tenths of a degree change in core temperature is enough to bump one out of a "thermoneutral" state). That he won the stage by such a large margin is due to his remarkable effort and that no one behind him could organize a chase group.
Cycling is not by any means unique in suffering from major doping problems. But not every athlete cheats, and many are clean. Landis had an ironclad reputation in the racing world as a clean rider.

If Lim and Landis were going to cross over to the dark side, testosterone would not be their bridge. There are many more effective means to cheat. Testosterone has limited effect, and in any case must be used in a cumulative manner; it is not a one-day wonder, like taking a shot of amphetamines. So where was it in all the other tests?
Not true. Testosterone gives an immediate if limited boost. As to why testosterone and not some other drug: No one is claiming he was a smart cheater. Also, why assume that Dr. Lim aided him? It's far more likely that Landis had help from some one employed by the team. Implying that Dr. Lim would have had to supply him only seeks to make it seem less likely that Landis cheated. Landis could have gotten a testosterone patch from any number of sources.
It is also worth noting that the validity of current testosterone testing methods is not universally accepted within the scientific community. A similar testosterone doping case brought to the Court of Arbitration for Sport was recently overturned. [I went to the CAS website and looked through their recent case law. I was unable to locate any overturned testosterone case. Pity, as it would be interesting to read the judgment. I did find a press release noting that the CAS had taken up a cycling doping case, but no decision has been reached--P ]

Landis is either another sad example of a rider without the will to escape the doping problems that cloud the sports world, or a man who represents a new way, a belief that clean sport can triumph, who has nevertheless somehow run afoul of the system. Whichever is true, he has the right to due process, which has so far been denied him because of all the leaks and the resultant media firestorm.
This is not a criminal trial, thus his right to what we would feel is due process (in essence: a fair hearing) is fairly constrained. Nevertheless, Landis will be given an opportunity to make his case. That he was treated so poorly by the officials is regrettable, but it did not impact his opportunity to make his best case.
Landis deserves a chance to clear himself. He had an unblemished reputation, the laboratory that tested his samples has a credibility problem, and the organizations put in place to ensure his rights to due process have either attacked him or ignored him.

Floyd Landis won the Tour de France. Reserve judgment until the facts are clear.
If such is his advice, perhaps he shouldn't be so quick to claim Landis is innocent.

A top British Muslim is undone by his own words

With this piece in today's Guardian, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain decries what he calls the misinterpretation of a recent letter to PM Tony Blair (emphasis supplied):
The open letter to the prime minister - which I signed alongside more than 40 Muslim groups, MPs and peers - has been subject to deliberate misinterpretation,suggesting a willingness among Muslim leaders to excuse violence and promote a simplified view of how extremism takes root.
A few paragraphs later he is excusing violence:
When difficult decisions are made, we must be ready to tackle the consequences that ensue.
He sums up thusly:
But Muslim leaders, parents and communities will be better positioned to defuse the potency of extremists' arguments once the impact of foreign policy has been acknowledged.
So, Britain must be aware that the extremists have potent (read: valid) arguments, and that any terrorist consequences to Britain's actions are natural. It should be the Muslim leaders' job to discredit the extremists' religious arguments; they needn't worry about supporting Blair's foreign policy. Certainly even the most valid complaint with Britain's foreign policy cannot excuse terror. Even if he feels the extremists have a potent argument, he can still point out that Islam forbids terror. Another lesson he should preach: the ballot box is where those opposed to a government's policy need to make their displeasure known. There are doubtless many modern Chamberlains out there; vote for them.

The author notes that he doesn't want appeasement, but goes on to say that Britain's failure to call for a ceasefire in Lebanon left many Muslims feeling "aggrieved and powerless", which is shorthand for "potential terrorists". Lesson to be learned: do what we want > nobody feels aggrieved or powerless > nobody becomes a terrorist > UK remains safe.

Fairly clever of him to latch on to this. Many Brits were unhappy with the magnitude of Israel's response to Hizbollah's attacks. Linking Muslims to anti-Israel feelings can only help him mainstream his ideas.

Dealing with Syria can't be avoided

How to handle Syria? Ignore it? Threaten it militarily? Neither of these tactics hold out much hope. Dennis Ross opines that negotiating may be the best and only solution. Syria must be given incentives, both negative and positive to change its behavior -- especially its support of Hizbollah. He notes that Syria is vulnerable to economic pressure.

Assad rules through the permission of a very tough minded, and doubtless avaracious, group. Make their lives more complicated, and we make the task of disarming Hizbollah easier in the long run.

After discussing the problems facing any UN force and the Lebanese army, Ross turns to the Syrian problem, and offers a workable solution:
[...] But there should be no illusions. History is full of good resolutions on Lebanon that have not been implemented because the Syrians had the power to block them. At a time when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is calling Hezbollah's victory a defeat for U.S. plans in the Middle East, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is proclaiming that implementation of Resolution 1701 will constitute a strategic setback for the Syrian regime, can Syria's behavior be altered to make this U.N. resolution's fate different from those of its predecessors?

It can if we take advantage of the new basis that exists to exercise much more leverage on Syria this time. Consider that the French and other Europeans will now be putting forces on the ground in Lebanon. If Hezbollah is being resupplied with arms and can be reconstituted militarily, those forces will become very vulnerable. That gives the French a powerful stake in preventing Hezbollah from rearming.

Working in tandem, the Bush administration and the French should try to change the Syrian calculus. Syria sees Hezbollah as a card -- something to be exploited to make Syria a factor in the region or to be traded in the right circumstances. We should create a one-two punch with the French to make clear that Syria has something significant to lose by not cutting off Hezbollah, and that it has something meaningful to gain from changing course.

Surely, if the international force is seen as credible and determined, it can convince Assad that Hezbollah is going to be contained and that its value to Syria could diminish. But Assad must also see that Syria will pay an unmistakable price if it tries to block implementation of Resolution 1701. That price could be a joint French-E.U. and American effort to isolate Syria economically if it is unwilling to end its material support for Hezbollah.

The Europeans currently provide a critical economic lifeline to the Syrians. French President Jacques Chirac could credibly warn Assad that if arms flow to Hezbollah and threaten French troops, then Europe will cut all economic ties to Syria. Conversely, if Syria ended its military relationship with Hezbollah and accepted the Lebanese government's effort to reestablish its authority, the European Union could promise new and meaningful economic benefits to Damascus.

In such a scenario, the European Union would be Act 1. Act 2 would involve the United States. The Bush administration, which has expressed an interest in weaning Syria away from Iran, won't be able to do that without talking to the Syrians. And it won't be able to do it by continuing to make threats that have no consequences. It will not be enough to continue saying, "The Syrians know what they need to do."

The United States must reinforce a tough E.U. message with one of its own to Assad, namely this: We are prepared to implement a range of sanctions, including the Syrian Accountability Act and executive orders that would make it difficult for companies and financial institutions that do business in Syria to conduct business in the United States.

This would have the potential of choking off European, Asian (and even Arab) countries and businesses from having any commercial or investment relations with Syria -- and it could be devastating for an already weak economy. That's a lever that should be deployed to build the Syrian interest in cooperating.

No doubt the Syrians would want to know what they'd get from such cooperation. They should be told that the page can be turned in our relations, that economic benefits could be forthcoming, and that even a resumption of the peace process between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights could be in the offing. None of these things can be available if Syria is not prepared to cut off Hezbollah and Hamas. Why, after all, would we invest anything in a peace process when those two organizations retain the means -- with Syrian support -- of subverting that process at a time of their choosing?

History is littered with well-intentioned efforts to transform Lebanon. If the current effort is to be different, we will need a credible international force shaped by real, not symbolic, missions and a new approach to Syria -- one that gives the Syrians a reason to calculate their interests differently.